Embarrassment or improvement — those are the two options Iowa State coaches have laid out for their players during the grind of fall camp.
And with such a stark set of terms in place for a veteran Iowa State football team, players have to bring something to the table everyday to avoid being viewed as a liability for a team with a preseason top-10 ranking for the first time ever.
Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has made it clear to his side of the ball that whether you're fighting for playing time or a preseason All-Big 12 selection, getting better has to be the goal every time you step on the field.
"Going against our offense everyday, you're either going to get embarrassed or you're going to get better — so those are your two options every single day and I think our guys have accepted the challenge on both sides of the field," Heacock said.
Backups and a two-deep stronger than year's past have made this possible for Heacock and the Cyclones. It's taken considerable time to get there and Heacock recognizes that, but now that it's here after a 9-3 season and Fiesta Bowl victory, there isn't wiggle room to become complacent. There are 16 players combined on the offensive line and at linebacker who have played at least two games for the Cyclones since 2020, and there are even more names on the cusp of earning playing time on special teams or in backup roles. With aspirations beyond the Big 12, players have taken the job of adding value throughout the roster seriously.
"I think our second group has grown. I think they’re better. I think there’s more confidence, more value," Heacock said. "They’ve added value to our team in a lot of different ways through special teams or through backup reps and I just think the key to the whole thing is, 'How can you add value to the team?'"
“I think our guys have found ways to add value, whether it be special teams reps or offense or defense," Heacock said. "I think our guys have done a great job of doing that. It’s important to them."
Can the same be said about a proven defensive force like Will McDonald? You bet. The junior defensive end tied for first nationally, led the Big 12 with 10.5 sacks in 2020 and even he has been crafting new skills to add to his arsenal on the edge this season. Heacock has watched one of his biggest returners from a season ago add value — and that trickles down for others to follow. McDonald worked mostly behind Iowa State's all-time sack leader JaQuan Bailey, but now that he's gone it's up to McDonald to lead the pass rush for Iowa State.
With Bailey out of the picture, McDonald, like the rest of his teammates, chose to add value to himself.
“He’s [McDonald] added a lot more value to himself and that in turn adds more value to our team," Heacock said. "What does that mean? Well, that means he’s been able to play on first down and second down. He can play a 9-technique for us now. He can play with our 4-down."
Value is being multiplied during fall camp for offensive coordinator Tom Manning's unit as well, with 10 returning players and a minimum of five starts coming back for the 2021 season. Manning didn't want to name a specific position group or player that's added the most value in fall camp, but said he's been impressed with his two-deep's drive to get better day-by-day.
"There's quite a bit of them where we've been excited is the development of some of the depth and a lot of guys continuing to push themselves up," Manning said. "That'll help us on special teams or on offense."
Manning said having multiple injuries on the offensive line in 2020, along with losing tight end Dylan Soehner to the NFL, gives real merit to his message of improving yourself. Opportunities are there to be taken and Iowa State coaches have instilled in their players to keep pushing themselves to try and seize them.
"Our focus has been how do we continue to get everybody better and I think we've been very excited about our intent and our 'want to' and trying to get better everyday with our young men," Manning said.